Chap. XV.

Of the Lake Asphaltites.

CONCERNING the Lake Asphaltites, the Lake of Sodom, or the dead Sea, that heavy bodies cast therein sink not, but by reason of a salt and bituminous thickness in the water float and swim above, narrations already made are of that variety, we can hardly from thence deduce a satisfactory determination; and that not only in the story it self, but in the cause alledged. As for the story, men deliver it variously; some I fear too largely, as Pliny, who affirmeth that bricks will swim therein.[1] Mandevil goeth farther, that Iron swimmeth, and feathers sinke.[2] Munster in his Cosmography hath another relation, although perhaps derived from the Poem of Tertullian, that a candle Burning swimmeth, but if extinguished sinketh.[3] Some more moderately, as Josephus,[4] and many others: affirming only that living bodies float, nor peremptorily averring they cannot sink, but that indeed they do not easily descend. Most traditionally, as Galen, Pliny, Solinus and Strabo,[5] who seems to mistake the Lake Serbonis for it. Few experimentally, most contenting themselves in the experiment of Vespasian, by whose command some captives bound were cast therein, and found to float as though they could have swimmed: divers contradictorily, or contrarily, quite overthrowing the point.[6] Aristotle in the second of his Meteors speaks lightly there, ὤσπερ μυθολογοῦσι, which word is various rendred, by some as a fabulous account, by some as a common talk. Biddulphus divideth the common accounts of Judea into three parts, the one saith he are apparent Truths, the second apparent falshoods, the third are dubious or between both; in which form he ranketh the relation of this Lake.7 But Andrew Thevet in his Cosmography doth ocularly overthrow it; for he affirmeth, he saw an Ass with his Saddle cast therein, and drowned. Now of these relations so different or contrary unto each other, the second is most moderate and safest to be embraced, which saith, that living bodies swim therein, that is, they do not easily sink; and this, untill exact experiment further determine, may be allowed, as best consistent with the quality, and the reasons alledged for it.

As for the cause of this effect, common opinion conceives it to be the salt and bituminous thickness of the water. This indeed is probable, and may be admitted as far as the second opinion concedeth. For certain it is that salt water will support a greater burden then fresh; and we see an egg will descend in salt water, which will swim in brine. But that Iron should float therein, from this cause is hardly granted; for heavy bodies will only swim in that liquor, wherein the weight of their bulk exceedeth not the weight of so much water as it occupieth or taketh up. But surely no water is heavy enough to answer the ponderosity of Iron, and therefore that metal will sink in any kind thereof, and it was a perfect miracle which was wrought this way by Elisha.[8] Thus we perceive that bodies do swim or sink in different liquors, according unto the tenuity or gravity of those liquors which are to support them. So salt water beareth that weight which will sink in vineger, vineger that which will fall in fresh water, fresh water that which will sink in spirits of Wine, and that will swim in spirits of Wine which will sink in clear oyl; as we made experiment in globes of wax pierced with light sticks to support them. So that although it be conceived an hard matter to sink in oyl, I beleeve a man should find it very difficult, and next to flying, to swim therein. And thus will Gold sink in Quick-silver, wherein Iron and other metals swim; for the bulk of Gold is only heavier then that space of Quick-silver which it containeth: and thus also in a solution of one ounce of Quick-silver in two of Aqua fortis, the liquor will bear Amber, Horn, and the softer kinds of stones, as we have made triall in each.

But a private opinion there is which crosseth the common conceit, maintained by some of late, and alleadged of old by Strabo, that the floating of bodies in this Lake proceeds not from the thickness of the water, but a bituminous ebullition from the bottom, whereby it wafts up bodies injected, and suffereth them not easily to sink. The verity thereof would be enquired by ocular exploration, for this way is also probable. So we observe, it is hard to wade deep in baths where springs arise; and thus sometime are bals made to play upon a sprouting stream.

And therefore, until judicious and ocular experiment confirm or distinguish the assertion, that bodies do not sink herein at all, we do not yet believe; that they not easily, or with more difficulty descend in this then other water, we shall readily assent. But to conclude an impossibility from a difficulty, or affirm whereas things not easily sink, they do not drown at all; beside the fallacy, is a frequent addition in humane expression, and an amplification not unusual as well in opinions as relations; which oftentimes give indistinct accounts of proximities, and without restraint transcend from one unto another. Thus, forasmuch as the torrid Zone was conceived exceeding hot, and of difficult habitation, the opinions of men so advanced its constitution, as to conceive the same unhabitable, and beyond possibility for man to live therein. Thus, because there are no Wolves in England, nor have been observed for divers generations, common people have proceeded into opinions, and some wise men into affirmations, they will not live therein although brought from other Countries. Thus most men affirm, and few here will believe the contrary, that there be no Spiders in Ireland; but we have beheld some in that Country; and though but few, some Cob-webs we behold in Irish wood in England.[9] Thus the Crocodile from an egg growing up to an exceeding magnitude, common conceit, and divers Writers deliver, it hath no period of encrease, but groweth as long as it liveth. And thus in brief, in most apprehensions the conceits of men extend the considerations of things, and dilate their notions beyond the propriety of their natures.

In the Mapps of the dead Sea or Lake of Sodom, we meet with the destroyed Cities, and in divers the City of Sodom placed about the middle, or far from the shore of it; but that it could not be far from Segor, which was seated under the mountains neer the side of the Lake, seems inferrible from the sudden arrival of Lot, who coming from Sodom at day break, attained Segor at Sun rising; and therefore Sodom to be placed not many miles from it, and not in the middle of the Lake, which is accounted about eighteen miles over; and so will leave about nine miles to be passed in too small a space of time.[10]


* [My or others' notes are in square brackets]; Browne's marginalia is unmarked; {passages or notes from unpublished material by Browne is in curly braces}. Ross mis-states Browne's argument and then proceeds to demolish it (or to try; it's pretty weak) in Arcana Microcosmi II:15.1

1 [Pliny does not say this precisely; but he does say that nothing can sink in it: NH II.226; englished by Holland, Chap. CIII.]

2 [Mandeville, Chap. 12: "That Dead Sea parteth the land of Ind and of Arabia, and that sea lasteth from Soara unto Arabia. The water of that sea is full bitter and salt, and, if the earth were made moist and wet with that water, it would never bear fruit. And the earth and the land changeth often his colour. And it casteth out of the water a thing that men clepe asphalt, also great pieces, as the greatness of an horse, every day and on all sides. And from Jerusalem to that sea is 200 furlongs. That sea is in length five hundred and four score furlongs, and in breadth an hundred and fifty furlongs; and it is clept the Dead Sea, for it runneth nought, but is ever unmovable. And neither man, ne beast, ne nothing that beareth life in him ne may not die in that sea. And that hath been proved many times, by men that have deserved to be dead that have been cast therein and left therein three days or four, and they ne might never die therein; for it receiveth no thing within him that beareth life. And no man may drink of the water for bitterness. And if a man cast iron therein, it will float above. And if men cast a feather therein, it will sink to the bottom, and these be things against kind."]

3 [Wren: So it will do in anye water, if kept upright.]

4 [Josephus in Bel. Jud. IV.viii.4.]

5 [Strabo XVI.2.]

6 [Wren: This diversity may proceed from the diverse experiments that have been made on severall sides of the lake, which have not all the like effecte: in some partes it beares that which in another part will sinke, as hath been experimented by some late travelers.]

7 Biddulphi itinerarium Anglice. [1609. He nevertheless reports the fabulous stories, pp. 142-143, dated Jerusalem, April 7, 1607:

On the top of mount Olivet, they shewed us thirtie miles off the lake of Sodom, which unto us appeared to bee very neere. And they told us thereof many strange matters. Not onely that which the wiseman Solomon reported of it in his daies. Wisd. 10.7. that it smoaketh, (as if hell had there found a chimney whereout to vent his smoake) and that the trees beare fruit that never commeth to ripenesse: but further, that it neither breedeth nor preserveth any living creature. It is commonly called Mare mortuum, that is, The dead sea; being so contagious, as if a bird but flie over it, she is presently dampt, and falleth down dead into it. And as S. Ierome saith: If by the swelling of Iordan, the fishes but flow over into it, they die straight and flote above the waters.

Yea, they further reported unto us of their owne knowledge, having (as they said) seene the same, that it casteth out continual filthy vapours, by whose stinches and breath the mountaines and valleys many miles about, are (as it were) scorched, blasted, and made utterly barren: besides many ugly shapes and shewes of terrour in it: besides apples of goodly colour growing by it, which being touched turne all to smoake and ashes.

They also tolde us that the piller of salt whereinto Lots wife was turned is yet standing.

But of these and many other things which they shewed us, and told us, I make doubt; either because I have not seene them my selfe, or having seene them, doe not beleeve them.]

8 [2 Kings 6:5-7: "5 But as one was felling a beam, the axe head fell into the water: and he cried, and said, Alas, master! for it was borrowed. 6 And the man of God said, Where fell it? And he shewed him the place. And he cut down a stick, and cast it in thither; and the iron did swim. 7 Therefore said he, Take it up to thee. And he put out his hand, and took it."]

9 [Spiders in Ireland are also discussed in Book VI, Chapter 7 and especially in a note. This is the only instance I know in the major works where Browne asserts that he has been in Ireland.]

10 [This paragraph is not in the first (1646) edition. For more on the location of Sodom and on the Dead Sea, see the Miscellany Tract Of Troas.]

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